There are definitely more 'a-ha' moments in the labs or in the field. Students who get that hands-on experience are always a step ahead of their peers.
Jeffrey Kavanaugh

Weathering heights

Students take to top of Tory Building to monitor meteorological patterns.


A group of 24 University of Alberta undergraduate students are taking to the roof of the Tory Building during this unseasonably warm month of February. They are up there building research-grade weather stations to monitor a range of standard meteorological parameters, all part of their Environmental Instrumentation class, a core course for the Environmental Earth Sciences degree.

“For a lot of students, this is their only practical experience building a weather station that measures meteorological variables before they go on to a career in environmental sciences,” says Jeffrey Kavanaugh, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “It has been a good building block and take-off point for the students.”

Hands-on experience

The environmental instrumentation course mimics remote field installations. “I find that hands-on experience really drives home the theoretical information presented in the more typical lecture setting,” says Kavanaugh. “There are definitely more ‘a-ha’ moments in labs or in the field. I think lab exercises represent that critical step where theory is made real. Students who get that hands-on experience are always a step ahead of their peers.”

In fact, the course has directly contributed to several students’ placement in summer research programs and technical positions with industry.

By having hands-on lessons in university, I can feel more confident when I join the workforce,” says student Ashley Smibert, currently taking the environmental instrumentation course. “I am a hands-on learner, so by having the laboratories hands-on, I actually understand my lectures more in depth.”

“In my eyes, this is the heart of the labs,” says Kavanaugh. “I try to mix it up and keep the labs current so they are interesting to the students and me. You don’t want to get bored with the material you’re teaching, and we want to ensure we are sending our students out in to the world with the most up-to-date knowledge.”

Environmental effects

Kavanaugh is now hoping to incorporate a drone lab where students use an unmanned aerial vehicle to take photographs of structures and then construct a 3-D elevation map.

“I try to get them to think about the effects of the local environment,” says Kavanaugh of the students who are measuring wind speed and direction, incoming solar radiation, air temperature, relative humidity and net radiation. “Of course with the Tory Building experiment, we are on a heated building, so the signal leaving is a bit modified from what you would see in an actual environment.”

Award-winning instruction

Kavanaugh has been running the environmental instrumentation course since his arrival at the U of A in 2005. He was recognized for his efforts with an innovation in teaching award from the Faculty of Science in 2015. 

“A key cornerstone of our philosophy for the undergraduate learning experience is to ensure our students get an authentic learning environment, ones that they'll see in multiple careers,” says Glen Loppnow, associate dean for learning and innovation and the Faculty of Science. “Dr. Kavanaugh provides such an ideal hands-on learning environment, both in the field and in the laboratory with these weather stations.”

Monitoring climate change

Kavanaugh’s research investigates the dynamics of glaciers and ice sheets, their impact on the landscape, and their response to changing climate. To address his research questions, he uses a combination of novel in situ field instrumentation techniques and numerical models developed to examine behaviours of the physical
system. In pursuit of these interests, he has led field campaigns to glaciers in Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, the Canadian High Arctic, and Antarctica, and has taught field courses in both the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the Antarctic Peninsula.